Friday, March 27, 2009

Spiritual Risk Mgmt 2: How to check our understanding?

Whenever we lead Dharma teachings or write/share teachings, be careful not to fall victim to arrogance as stated in the Arya Sanghata Sutra. There is a paragraph in the sutra that admonished such self-conceit teachers. On one level you can interprete “teachers” as external people, but on the other hand, it could also be a reference to our own conceitedness and ego. So, it’s good to be careful. It goes as follows:-

“… Then, after they have heard many dharma teachings, they fall into exceptional arrogance, and speak all kinds of nonsense. Overcome by ego-grasping and selfish grasping at things as their own, they do not themselves listen to this sort of dharma,… they say, “We ourselves know,” and they donot hold on to it, nor do they lend their ears to listen.

“If one should wonder why that is, it is because they have become full of arrogance in this way. ...Due to their extensive learning, they become conceited. People like these publish their own compositions. They publish the prefaces to their own texts, too. They deceive themselves and the whole world….” - The Noble Mahayana Sanghata Sutra Dharma-paryaya

Whenever we think we have some new understanding or new interpretation to certain aspects of the Sutras/classical works that seems vague, we need to support our understanding/interpretation with the relevant passages of the other Buddhist sutras and acclaimed classical works/records of acknowledged masters (it must be an acknowledged master, not just any masters) such as Nagarjuna, Atisha, Marpa, Milarepa, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, etc. We need to be able to support our arguments in a scholastic manner. If we just blasts away the teachings without supportive elements,

1. it could mean we think of ourselves as a qualified teacher, good enough to teach. But what we do not know is that other people think we have become crazy or a fake guru.

2. our teachings will lack substance without examples and other quotes from other sutras and classical works from other great masters.

In both cases above, we will be deceiving ourselves and others and ultimately harming both.

This is another way to implement spiritual risk management that I talked about earlier. It enables us to check whether our dharma understanding is consistent and correct or not with that of what is taught by Sakyamuni Buddha and later the same dharma understood by generations of great masters in the past. I have heard of many people asking how they would know their understanding is correct or not. The usual answers they get would be “ask your master or those of his lineage”. This reply is good, but if you are a student of a deviant or cultist master, (and we have plenty of them these days) you will have a problem. The master will always say, “Yes, yes, you have the right understanding” when in fact, he does not understand anything at all. Later, both master and students will fall into the hells. Also if the lineage head's understanding is shallow, then if your understanding is only of that lineage alone, and you do not seek out the answers from the Sutras and classical texts, then there is a risk that everyone in the lineage will have that same shallow understanding too. To add, asking friends and dharma brothers and sisters is a good way of discussion and for findings points of agreement/disagreement, but ultimately we cannot rely on friends/peers to check our understanding is correct or not.

The proper answer to check your understanding is to be able to quote the relevant quotes/passages directly from the sutras/records. It is not good to just make a guess…”I think the Buddha said that…” ...I think this, I think that. Thinking is not good enough. We must be able to show where exactly did the Buddha said/taught that. And then support it with other teachings from other Masters. Quote the name of the texts of the masters that you are using to support whatever knowledge you are trying to support as correct. Be honest about it. That is why studies of scriptures and texts is also important in our spiritual pursuit. Some people think practice is good enough. Clearly this is not true. How can you practice, if you do not know what and how to practice? How can practice be “enough”, when you do not know the results from your practice is correct or not? So, studying is important too in addition to practice.

If you are familiar with writing scholarly thesis (especially those who have taken masters degree or PhD), then you will know what I am talking about here. It is the same way. Basically, you need to support what you are saying with relevant examples, experiences, other researches or tests, surveys, etc that people can refer to.

This is not something new actually. I am supporting what I am saying here too by telling you this is how those people pursuing their masters and postgraduate studies publish their works. Secondly, this was how people who are studying the dharma publish their works too. Not just for circular studies, even in spiritual studies people like Lama Tsongkhapa wrote his volumes of sutra and tantric teachings in this manner too. In some passages, I have read that he was careful to tell his readers that what he wrote was not merely his opinion. And then he would go on to quote passages from other texts to support it. And in the bibliography section, or at the footnote, the relevant page and paragraph of the said text is indexed. Other than Je Tsongkhapa, I have seen other masters of other lineages did the same thing, such as the author of “Students and Master Relationship in tantric Buddhism”. I am sorry I cannot recall correctly the title of the text but it is something on that topic and if not mistaken the author is Jamyang Khyense. He also supports his teachings in that manner.

So, remember not to just assume what you wrote or what you think you understand is the Buddha’s teachings. Yes, you need to be able to show where are those "teachings"? Quote me the name of the Buddhist sutra/text, which paragraph, and page.

I wrote this with the hope that it will benefit some people out there. Hopefully, through these approach some people may realise they were merely deceiving themselves (and others), and stop doing that. Wake up before it is too late!


Anonymous said...

bro.. i personally like this article very much..


Me said...

Glad you like it, but unfortunately the advice fell on deaf ears. It was meant generally for everyone, but also specifically for 2 persons who were arguing between themselves to see who's correct and who's not. As a by-stander, their arguments are useless if both sides do not support their arguments with facts. Each side states that the other side is wrong... In a proper dharma debate, both of them would have lost.

I am sure you have read Lam Rim Chen Mo and noticed how it was written. Tsongkhapa distinguished himself from other Masters in that sense, i.e he doesnot take himself as teaching something new, but always careful to support whatever he thinks with some paragraph of the Buddha's sutras or other Great Masters' commentaries.